The Chinese Super League shook the football transfer market this winter. It made Carlos Tévez the world’s best-paid footballer and swept Oscar from Chelsea. Is their model sustainable? Is it a threat for Europe?
Such a disproportionate flow of money is hardly new. In fact, we have talked about big transfer numbers into China for a couple of years now. What is of note, however, is that Chinese teams have started to really throw around large sums of money over the past two seasons. Only three of the 25 costliest signings in Chinese Super League history came before the 2015-16 season.
It became clear that Chinese teams and their investors meant serious business when Shanghai SIPG announced the signing of Carlos Tévez.
The Argentinian, virtually on the sunset of his career, is to earn a shocking €40m/year. That puts him above of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo themselves.
However, the Chinese Super League is not exactly setting the world alight in terms of sheer footballing quality. The financial muscle far outbalances the level. This begs the question: is China a credible threat to Europe’s supremacy in club football?
All the guns, but no bullets
As soon as Tévez was announced, the media published rumours about another record breaker. Outlets in Spain, Germany and England speculated that Shenua would make a mind-boggling €128m bid for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. They also offered the striker a salary of €41m/year. Now, Borussia Dortmund dismissed the rumours, with Hans-Joachim Watzke complaining that he has “no time for hypothetical things”.
Except it may not have been all that hypothetical. Just this season, Chinese clubs paid nearly €150 million for Oscar, Hulk and Alex Teixeira. Shanghai SIPG spent way over €100m reinforcing their squad for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
We have come to a point where such a ludicrous offer from China is credible. So much so, that the chairman of a major European club felt it was necessary to set the record straight himself. Aubameyang would probably stay at Dortmund anyway, but the siren song of money is loud enough to have to dismiss.
Come for the money, stay for the money
As a result, the league suffers from a steep imbalance between capital and quality. Yes, a few mid-high profile players have fled Europe for China. However, the massive offers have thus far failed to lure the more coveted players. Robert Lewandowski, for instance, rejected a massive offer from a Chinese club recently.
In the end, China presents itself as a good opportunity for two kinds of players: firstly, quality players who have fallen out of favour. Examples of this category include Oscar, Jackson Martínez and Paulinho. Then, you have chaps who were great promises but went to dead-end clubs like Zenit St. Petersburg – Axel Witsel and Hulk, if you like.
China managed to attract these players. Yet, it fails when it comes to actual superstars in top-level European clubs. That’s both a cause and an effect of the deficit in quality.
For all the financial power they boast, the Chinese clubs are not being overly smart about how they use it. Rather, they throw around the chequebook like crazy. They submit massive offers before stopping to think about the actual value of players. This is yet another indication that money is all they have. Put yourself in Oscar’s position. Unless you received a huge offer, far exceeding your current salary, would you really go to China?
The problem for players like him is that their value is inflated. Both Chelsea’s asking price and past glory influence the figure in the tag. However, going to China only exacerbated this problem. TransferMarkt lists Oscar’s value at just under 30 million pounds. He went to China for just over 50. This transfer inflated his value again, and that could complicate a return to Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the enormous spending attracted the attention of government. A top official with China’s sport regulation agency said that it is necessary to place a cap on both transfers and salaries. He pointed out that the objective is to combat “irrational spending”.
It is likely that the problem isn’t the spending itself. Rather, it looks like the government is not happy with money being thrown at foreign players. China wants to position itself as a world power in football by mid-century. The proper way to do that is to establish a solid foundation: excellent youth programmes and development opportunities. The €40m that SIPG will pay Tévez every year could be put to better use in that way.
Think of it as a downgraded MLS. While it still fails to attract much else than soon-to-retire players, there is a solid development philosophy embedded in the federation. They pay attention to young talents, even if they play abroad, like Christian Pulisić. The Americans are trying to do the right thing in the long term.
So here we stand. China is a financial powerhouse. It is starting to inject a lot of capital into football. As a result, it feels normal that they execute some outlandish transfers. Still, they are neglecting the real way in which the quality of both their league and their national team, currently place 82nd in the FIFA ranking, could skyrocket.
Unless China starts to really invest in youth development, they are just another Qatar. Lots of money, but little quality to show for it. Thus, it will be hard for Chinese clubs to attract more than just out-of-favour players looking for some big cash to end their careers.
For now, it should be noted that China is not a threat to European supremacy in football.